At a preview Monday night of the movie “Shock and Awe” at the Newseum, the seats were filled with journalists and the wonks who (sometimes) love them, and director Rob Reiner was anxious. “I’m looking forward to your reaction more than anyone we’re screening the movie for,” he said before the film started rolling.
Centered on the efforts of a team of Knight Ridder journalists in the lead-up to the Iraq War — whose reports often contradicted the line from the Bush administration and Pentagon about the intelligence that led us to attack the country in the wake of 9/11 — it’s a Newspaper Movie through-and-through, with all the tense calls to sources, guys wearing khakis, coffee and noble “go get ’em” pep talks from editors we’ve come to expect from the genre.
But this was a crowd that knows the life firsthand, including the real-life versions of the onscreen characters, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, played by Woody Harrelson and James Marsden, respectively, along with their editor at the time, John Walcott, who Reiner plays. (A fun fact revealed at the event: Alec Baldwin had been cast as Walcott, but he backed out at the last minute, and Reiner’s wife suggested he take the part).
And the reaction? Well, let’s just say that copy-editing jokes probably won’t slay quite as hard with other audiences as they did at the Newseum. The laughs at sources hanging up on reporters seemed tinged with a certain been-there sympathy. And a brief appearance by the actual Knight Ridder team in a montage scene depicting reporters across the newsroom hard at work got a round of applause (though to a layman’s audience, they’d just look like any other Dockers-sporting extras).
At a panel discussion afterward, Landay, Strobel and Walcott, along with former Knight Ridder columnist Joe Galloway (played in the film by Tommy Lee Jones), talked about how they helped Reiner get the story — and the details — right.
But surely that high-minded, spine-stiffening speech Walcott gave his reporters was the product of a Hollywood writing room? Nope, pretty much verbatim, as Reiner recalled transcribing it on-set from the reporters’ recollections. And their editor’s cinematic conviction about the story? Truth, too.
“You can’t run a news organization, or probably any organization, on fear,” Walcott said. “You can’t have people second-guessing themselves. They have to be right. You can’t pursue a story like this if you’re always afraid.”
The panel discussion delivered not just behind-the-scenes tidbits, but an affirmation that Jones’s portrayal of Galloway was spot-on. The veteran war correspondent who was awarded a Bronze Star for helping a wounded soldier in Vietnam was as salty IRL as you’d expect from his onscreen avatar.
After an expletive directed at former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who was jailed for not revealing her sources (“They put the right b‑‑‑‑ in jail for the wrong reason”), Reiner laughed. “I cast it right, didn’t I?”
The famously left-leaning director drew parallels between the lead-up to the Iraq War and the current media climate, in which he said plenty of reporters are digging deep, though they are being undermined by the president and right-wing news organizations. “Right now, our democracy is under attack and the press is under attack by the president of the United States, calling it the enemy of the people, and so hopefully, this will resonate in some way,” Reiner said. “We’re fighting right now; we’re fighting for the soul of the country.”
Also spotted in the crowd: Former CIA chief John Brennan; Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.); “Shock and Awe” producer and Reiner’s wife Michele Singer Reiner; McClatchy president and chief executive Craig Forman; David Corn of Mother Jones; Bloomberg columnist Al Hunt; and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times.